Revisited: How To Become An Overnight Success in Just 15 Years

Writer-directors Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky on the real, unglamorous story behind their award-winning breakthrough movie Freaks.

Over the festive break, Talkhouse Film is revisiting some of its most read (or listened to) pieces of the year, including this one. Happy holidays! – N.D.


On September 13 (Friday the 13th!), our first feature film Freaks comes out in theaters. The movie we wrote and directed has been winning awards at film festivals around the world, is hovering around 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and is getting a traditional theatrical release around the country … something unheard of for most indies. It’s a dream come true.

To some people who hear about the film, it may seem like an overnight success. But the truth is, we’ve been “up-and-coming” for more than 15 years.

Freaks took us five years to make. But it was also the culmination of much more time sweating it out in the salt mines of Hollywood. Jobs that we’ve had include: editor, assistant editor, “Avid intern,” office assistant, grip, best boy, prop maker, copywriter, visual effects compositor, on-set still photographer, filmmaking instructor, corporate video producer, cinematographer, production assistant, camera operator, and boom op.

Doing these jobs was necessary to pay rent. Sometimes they were creative and fun, and sometimes it even felt like we were making progress towards our dream of becoming writer-directors. But more often, when we came home from a night of hauling cable or logging tapes, it felt like we were on a long path to nowhere. We often made mistakes on our journey, trudging through the foggy forest of the entertainment industry, often wondering if we even knew which direction we had to take through the brambles to reach the glittering castle on the hill.

With every year that passed, it sounded like an even bigger party was happening on the other side of that thicket of thorns, celebrating the 20-year-old filmmakers who made their award-winning first feature film, or those cool-looking people on the 30-under-30 lists. We got older, but they stayed the same age.

Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky on the set of Freaks

If you feel like you’ve been slogging your way towards your creative dream for years, you are not alone. Sometimes a young talent comes out of nowhere and wins universal praise and instant riches. But in our experience, those early successes depend on one thing: luck.

For the vast majority who are equally talented but not as lucky, the path to creative success is less about creative genius than it is about perseverance, entrepreneurship and growth.

It’s easy to say “never give up,” and we were committed to not giving up during our years of muddy struggle. But it’s less clear what to do during all this not giving up.

The truth is, pure perseverance is just half of the equation. The other half is realizing that “the cavalry is not coming.” In 2015, Mark Duplass gave a speech at SXSW, coining that phrase (check it out). When we saw that speech online, it was exactly the inspiration we needed.

There’s a romantic notion that someone powerful from the industry is supposed to proclaim you worthy and welcome you into the inner sanctum of success. But the cavalry is not coming, and this romantic dream is a myth. Creating your own work, no matter how small, is the only way forward.

If you don’t have the benefit of miraculous luck, success only comes when you make your personal dreams into reality through sheer force of will. If you’re waiting for someone else to give you permission to create — to hire you for that dream job, to fund your project — you could wait forever.

Mark’s speech was the kick in the pants that made us finally realize: no one was ever going to give us permission to make our dream projects happen. We launched into writing a movie that we could make, no matter how few resources we had. Even if we had to make it for $0, even if we had to act in it ourselves (we’re not actors), we would make this movie. We wrote the script, reworked it with through many drafts, and started prepping the shoot without waiting for someone to tell us we could.

When you don’t wait for permission, something miraculous starts to happen. People can feel the excitement, the energy, of a creative passion project being turned into reality. And that excitement inspires their inner artists to want to get involved too.

As we started sharing our low-budget script with our friends and their friends, fancy talent agents who never would have taken our calls before started calling us, unsolicited, saying they had clients who would be perfect for our movie. Two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Dern called, saying he wanted to play one of the leads. People with money started checking in too, curious about this movie they’d heard buzz about.

But there was one other crucial gift that our 15 years of struggle gave us: 15 years of mistakes. We had many film projects fall apart before this one. Mistakes we’d made in the past taught us where the pitfalls might be this time.

We found several investors who shared our vision for the project, and we were grateful for their involvement. But we also turned down several bigger investors because we could sense that the strings they wanted to attach might tie us up creatively. In the end, we ended up making Freaks for a lot more than $0, but it was still a low enough budget that no one involved could stop us from making the movie we wanted.

How we made the thing and finished it and got it sold, that’s a long story for another time. But the theme of it is perseverance, tenacity, and keeping a growth mindset.

All along the way, the two of us felt very lucky to have each other – a creative kindred spirit and partner with whom we could brainstorm, commiserate, and solve problems. We had worked separately over the years, each trying to claw our way into the industry, but in the years before we started Freaks, we came together to collaborate more and more.

Emile Hirsch and and Lexy Kolker in Freaks.

You may have a friend who’s already found fame in your chosen field – maybe you know one of those 20-year-old instant successes. When you see those people make it, it’s common for feelings of depression or jealousy to pop up. But it’s important to remember that creating art is not a zero sum game; one person’s success does not hurt your own chances for success. In fact, it’s the opposite: a rising tide lifts all boats. The more friends of yours who succeed, the better it is for you.

Both of us had ups and downs during our journey, but we always rooted for each other. And the successes that one of us had ended up helping the other. In our case, we decided to tie both of our boats together and found that our combined vessels provided more strength and a more fun ride than we had experienced before.

Trying to reach success as an artist can feel like climbing an endless ladder … no matter how hard you climb, you never actually reach where you’re going. But we’ve also found it essential to remind ourselves to look down every once in a while, to see how far we’ve come.

It’s even more important —and even more difficult — to appreciate the process, the sensation of climbing. How lucky are all of us creative folks to feel the rungs under our feet, to experience the sweet and passion-filled exertion of the ascent. Only enjoying the journey can bring true happiness, and getting to climb the ladder is its own reward, no matter how long it takes.

“We met 11 years ago as competitors on On the Lot, Steven Spielberg’s reality show search for up-and-coming filmmakers. We made a new short film every week and lived together for a summer, sequestered in a bungalow on a studio lot in Los Angeles.

Out of the 12,000 filmmakers who started the competition, we both finished in the top 5 but short of the prize. But we won something better than the competition: a lasting friendship and collaboration. Over the years we’ve directed digital and TV projects, most recently the live-action version of Disney’s Kim Possible.

Freaks is our first feature film, and the first project that we’ve written. As a result, it’s the most personal and artistic expression of who we are as filmmakers.”